Working with little more than skeletal remains, the state medical examiner faces a significant challenge in determining how three infants found in a Blackstone home last week died, according to legal analysts, who say the review will be a crucial part of the criminal investigation.
One key to whether prosecutors will have enough evidence to file a charge of homicide, manslaughter, or another serious felony will be the condition of the remains, and the length of time they were left in the home. The medical examiner will want to look for any tissue damage or trauma to determine if the deaths were unnatural, but that opportunity could be lost if the bodies have been fully decomposed, analysts said.
“The future of the case right now, in terms of the nature of the charges, hinges on that,” said Bradford Bailey, a defense attorney and a former state and federal prosecutor.
“If the cause of death is unnatural, you could be looking at a host of potential charges, from manslaughter to first-degree murder . . . but they’re still a long way from that.”
Erika Murray, the 31-year-old who investigators suspect is the mother of the children, was charged last week with fetal death concealment, witness intimidation, and permitting substantial injury to a child after authorities discovered four living children and the remains of the three infantsin the squalid, vermin-infested home in Blackstone.
Murray had hid the existence of the two youngest living children — she appears to have clandestinely given birth at home — and they were found sitting in their own feces by a neighbor. The children showed signs of severe neglect and appeared to have been raised largely in seclusion.
The man believed to be the father of the children, Ramon Rivera III, has told authorities he only knew of his two oldest children. He reportedly said that he spent much of his time in the home’s basement, and was largely unaware of the deteriorating conditions upstairs.
Rivera has not been charged in the case. Police have said the investigation is ongoing.
Legal analysts have said that Rivera could be vulnerable to the same child neglect charge that Murray faces, which carries a punishment of up to 2½ years in prison.
A 2002 change in state law broadened the definition of child endangerment to go beyond physical abuse, and it applies to an adult who is “aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that the adult’s actions could cause serious injury to any child, said Laura Gold, a former prosecutor who sits on the board of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a child-abuse prevention organization.
But legal analysts say that investigators may also want to look at whether anyone should face more serious charges, possibly murder, regarding the discovered remains. That charge would necessitate a finding that Murray had a strong understanding that death could occur, though prosecutors could also consider a charge of manslaughter. For that charge, according to analysts, prosecutors would have to find that a defendant played a negligent or reckless role in a death.
“It can be difficult to determine if they were born dead, or if they died after birth, once decomposition sets in,” said Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief medical examiner of New York City and former chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. “The condition of the body is going to be very important to the medical examiner.”
Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and author of the book “Working Stiff: Two Years, 252 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner,” said that a forensic anthropologist’s work will be key to the case.
“A forensic anthropologist can examine the bones for trauma and determine the age of the infant, but in the absence of bone injury, many such cases are frequently classified as ‘undetermined,’” she said, adding that causes of death such as “asphyxia from smothering” and most natural deaths cannot be determined in skeletonized remains.
Baden, who has investigated the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, said that investigators should be able to determine whether there were any injuries to the bones, but he agreed that “not all deaths involve bones.
For investigators to know for sure what happened, it’s likely that Murray will have to cooperate and tell authorities, Baden said.
Gerard T. Leone Jr., a former state and federal prosecutor and now a defense attorney with Nixon Peabody, said Tuesday that prosecutors have probably gathered as much physical evidence as possible to put the medical examiner’s report in context. They will also seek to talk to Murray, her oldest children, and their father, Rivera.
Investigators will want to know whether anyone saw the infants, heard them crying, or saw any evidence that they were born. If the bodies have not decomposed, investigators will look for any sign of trauma or scar tissue.
“If you don’t have anything revealing, then you’re looking at what you have for the best evidence, which is what’s left of the body,” Leone said.
Leone said the case best exemplifies the challenging work of forensic investigators.
“It’s fascinating, but it can be troubling and frustrating from an investigator or prosecutor’s perspective if you don’t have enough evidence to make a decision,” Leone said. “If you’re lacking in physical evidence, and you’re lacking in collateral evidence such as witness statements, you can’t bring a case that’s beyond reasonable doubt, because you wouldn’t have the basis to do so.”
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